By Dr. Paul Gould

The ancient philosophers thought the human impulse to seek understanding begins in wonder. We look at the world before us and it stirs within us a desire to know: first the truth about the moon, or stars, or humans, or ants, and second, we begin to wonder about the meaning behind it all, and the source of it all. Wonder is a distinctly human capacity, it is the “hallmark of our species and the central feature of the human spirit.” [1] The Biblical scholar William Brown colorfully describes humans as Homo admirans, “wondering humans” who have, in addition to X and Y chromosomes, “what could be called the ‘Why’ chromosome that determines our humanity.” [2]

This capacity for wonder, I believe, is part of our God-given longing to know the truth about God, the world, and the self. It is the emotion that stirs us to walk the path of reason in pursuit of truth. Many of us, no doubt, are university professors because of this call of wonder. We love and long for knowledge—not as something that merely brings some non-cognitive benefit, but as something intrinsically worthwhile.

For many today, unfortunately, this sense of wonder has been muted. In a digital age, many are one-step removed from reality, mediating their existence through a pixelated screen. We no longer see the world as it is and so we are not moved by it either. This unfortunate state of affairs brings unique challenges for us as educators. To be sure, the challenge of capturing our student’s attention is real. But a general loss of wonder leads to an even more devastating consequence. As William Brown alarmingly states, “If we lose our sense of wonder, we consign ourselves and the world to destruction.” [3] In failing to see people and things in their proper light—as gift—we begin to see them as commodities to be used and exploited. In our failure to wonder, “we lose the world and ourselves.” [4]

As university professors, we are well positioned to play a role in awakening wonder in others. In this post, I will unpack the nature of wonder. In the next, I’ll explore how we can be purveyors of wonder as university professors.

Brown, building on the classic work on wonder by Sam Keen, identifies three kinds of wonder. [5] First, there is ontological wonder. This first wonder marvels at the most basic fact of human existence: why do we exist at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? Second, there is sensational wonder. This wonder is the emotion of awe experienced when confronted with a panoramic vista or the sublimity of a sun setting over the ocean. It is also the kind of wonder Hollywood works so hard to generate, with ever-increasing frenzy, in many of their action and adventure films. Finally, there is mundane wonder. The many daily signposts of the divine found in a heartfelt conversation with a friend or spouse, the laughter of a child, and the beauty and sense of peace evoked in a well-designed urban park. Wonder helps us see things in their proper light. Wonder invites enchantment, or re-enchantment, to our weary and disenchanted souls. As Brown summarizes, “Wonder is the familiar becoming new and fresh and downright strange.” [6]  Importantly, at its root, wonder is relational because “it is all about encounter.” [7] Wonder forces us to encounter another—a thing or person—and to truly see and understand. And when we truly see and understand, we are ultimately lead to worship the God behind it all.

This understanding of wonder has profound implications for us as university professors. In my next post, I’ll unpack those implications.

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[1] Melvin Konner, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, 2nd ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 488; cited in William Brown, Sacred Sense (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 3. 

[2] Brown, Sacred Sense, 3–4. 

[3] Ibid., 4. 

[4] Ibid., 157.

[5] This paragraph is a summary of Brown’s discussion in Sacred Sense, 7. See also Sam Keen, Apology for Wonder (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

[6] Brown, Sacred Sense, 7.

[7] Ibid.